Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Sony at E3 2012

Say what you want about giant enemy crabs, since the launch of the PS3 Sony’s E3 appearances have had an air of quality about them.

Of course they have to justify selling hardware several magnitudes more expensive than that of their rivals. When the PS3’s price-point was announced--not to jeering but eery silence--some bright spark with a Little Professor calculated that for the price of one of Sony’s wonder-consoles a gamer could own both Wii and Xbox 360 and still have bus fare to the nearest CEX. With the Wii a household name and 360s in every eight-year-old’s bedroom Sony have the most to prove at events like these--especially given the lack of interest in their latest heldheld, the PSVita. E3 2012 was their chance to shine.

And shone the PSVita did, in a spectacular galaxy of negative starlight. There was a black hole in Sony’s conference where the Vita should have been--something keenly noticed by all those who’ve bought one since launch. While Nintendo announced a second press event to showcase their handheld, Sony swept theirs under the rug, offering nothing more than a desultory look at a couple ‘system exclusive’ side-stories for Black Ops 2 and Assassin’s Creed 3 and--for the umpteenth time--Sony urging us to use their handhelds as peripherals for ‘proper’ consoles. If there was ever a raft of Vita games to look forward to, it had been sunk beneath the prow of its older, bigger brother.

Sony certainly got off to a good start, with a montage that seemed to promise more games than they actually showed. Swaggering Jack Tretton--Sony’s mafiosi don to Nintendo’s enforcer Reggie--even talked about ‘the gaming industry’ rather than ‘the future of digital multimedia entertainment’, a promising sign if ever there was one..

Sadly, Sony future included taking Super Smash Brothers and replacing the characters with a grab-bag of fighters from, well, any developers Sony deigned to throw money at. In 1998 we’d have had Solid Snake, Crash Bandicoot and Ape Escape on the roster. In 2012 we have a Big Daddy from Bioshock, prompting the response: “Yeah, I suppose that did come out on PS3.” Without recognisable licenses of its own--or any original ideas, apparently--the shameless rip-off that is Sony All-Stars: Battle Royale was further impeded by an on-stage demonstration so confusing even the commentator seemed lost.

Between this and a limp finale showcasing QTE kills in God of War: Ascension--looking so similar to previous iterations I defy you to tell the difference--Sony dropped a Butterbeer-scented bombshell: they were making a new Harry Potter book.

J.K. Rowling’s Book of Spells was the game they used to illustrate Wonderbook, an augmented reality device that works in sync with Sony Eye and Move (remember those?) controllers. The demonstration split online commentators, with non-readers proclaiming books ‘Borin’ innit’ while other saw its potential. While the presentation was hardly compelling and Sony have a history of AR failures under their belt, this kind of technology could revolutionise classrooms and home learning. If I worked for Leapfrog, I’d be paying very close attention to Wonderbook.

If any one of the three console manufacturers could be said to have ‘won’ E3, it would be Sony. Outside the interminable Wonderbook presentation they unveiled a future where games are still important. Quantic Dream’s Beyond might have looked like a movie, but if you stripped away the cutscenes and Uncanny Valley simulacrum of Ellen Page there’d probably be gameplay in there somewhere. Likewise, the lucid brutality of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us might have been the mildest example of E3 2012’s preponderance for ultra violence (the God of War demo concluded with Kratos literally stabbing an elephant’s brain out) but by jingo, it was a video game.

It’s sad knowing all it takes to triumph at E3 is to show off some games, but it’s even sadder knowing this is something Microsoft and Nintendo are reticent to do. With the Vita a sucking wound both in Sony’s pockets and in its presentation, if Sony truly won E3, they only did so by default.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Nintendo at E3 2012

When a sixty-something Japanese man finds tiny flower people living in an audience member’s nose, you know you’ve either stumbled across the sequel to 2 Girls 1 Cup or you’re watching Nintendo at E3.

The company’s known for its oddball maneuvers, placing bewildered sales VP Cammie Dunaway in front of an audience she clearly believed to be of creche age, opening one year’s conference with Wii Music--about which, the less said, the better--not to mention the whole Wii affair, an audacious move toward a previously untapped audience which not only gave the ailing firm a hyperinjection of monetised adrenalin, but also upset the entire industry. Look at Microsoft and Sony, still playing catch-up with hardware ‘inspired’ by the Wii-mote. Without Nintendo, would we live in a world of Wonderbooks and Kinect Nike Fitness? If anyone’s to blame, it’s them.

Unlike those of their competitors, Nintendo’s press events are filled with colourful characters, the likes not seen elsewhere at E3 since J. Allard decided to act his age instead of his shoe size. Shigeru Miyamoto, Lou Ferrigno-a-like Reggie Fils-Ame and the company’s messianic president Satoru Iwata all put in appearances this year, with burden of presenting falling on Reggie--because, let’s face it, not many of us are fluent in broken English. Reggie is a gentle giant, the kind of host who looks on the verge of breaking guest speakers’ legs while simultaneously clowning about. At one point he drawled “My body is ready” referening an online meme making fun of one of his previous appearances at E3. It’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t expect to hear elsewhere, just as no other company would open with the Pikmin skit at the top of Nintendo’s conference. While other companies declare themselves ‘hip’, ‘hot’ and ‘cool’, Nintendo are content to be ‘fun’.

Which is exactly why we like them.

So when Miyamoto left the stage and things started going downhill it felt rather mean to put the boot in. Their slogan ‘More smiles’ was quickly downgraded to ‘the occasional frown’; by the end of the conference we’d reached ‘unending scorn’, a phrase sadly befitting much of E3 thus far. It wasn’t that they didn’t show some interesting titles--with new Pikmin, new Scribblenauts and new New Super Mario Brothers it’d be churlish to suggest otherwise--but what should have been the highlight of the show--the unveiling of the Wii U--wasn’t anything to get excited about. Like its predecessor, the Wii U was full of squandered potential--how else would you describe using the touch-screen pad as a jumped-up pause menu? Questions about the system’s specs and functionality lingered like E3 B.O. If some titles need the touch screen to control them, how can you play games though the Wii U pad instead of on your TV? Making matters worse, many of the admittedly impressive number of games shown running used the pad for exactly the kind of gimmickry gamers tired of shortly after the Wii’s release. When the conference ended with NintendoLand, a minigame bundle in the form of a digital theme park, it felt we’d reached a kind of E3 impasse where none of the big three knew what the hell to do next. The games industry’s in a holding pattern, caught between generations. It’s unwilling to commit in any particular direction for fear someone might get the jump on them, as Nintendo--and more recently, Apple--once did.

And it’s depressing that this is the case, particularly when Nintendo not only have new hardware on the horizon, but are demonstrating it in L.A. as I type. Seeing Pikmin 3 and Reggie’s opening spiel celebrating games while covering in a throw away remark the kind of media streaming Microsoft made such a big song and dance about gave me hope. Seeing the same tired Wii Fit minigames pedalled again for a new generation made me depressed. While it must be nice for anyone who didn’t tuck their balance board away beneath their living room dresser, for those of us with no intention of wearing a calorie-counting pedometer on our belts, it’s sad to see the same old lifestyle nonsense trotted out year after year.

With its newly broadened audience, sometimes it feels like the game industry’s fighting a war on multiple fronts, and growing weaker the longer the struggle goes on. Meanwhile, people who enjoy innovation in gaming are neglected up in some small corner of Europe, feeling rather sorry for themselves. When something like Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs comes along we pounce upon it with vigour. Alone among all the games thus far previewed at E3, Watch Dogs seems like it comes from the future. It’s at the exact opposite end of the gaming spectrum from NintendoLand, which--unfair as it is to judge such an obvious work in progress--already feels like a relic.

Like Sony, Nintendo decided not to spend more than a couple of minutes on their handheld console. Unlike the Vita, the 3DS will have its own hour-long press event tomorrow night. Let’s hope it fairs a little better than the Wii U.

100 Minutes With . . . Microsoft at E3 2012

The problem with E3 is that it isn’t for us.

This is something something you’ll hear when spending any time in the company of games journalists, for whom E3 is a shiny pinwheel fuelling magazines, websites and blogs. But if isn’t for gamers or games writers that leaves the question of who all this razzle-dazzle is for. Are investors really wowed by child-actors cavorting with digital lion cubs? It’s a mystery.

Microsoft opened this year’s E3 with typical pomp and circumstance. They presentered attendees and those streaming over the Internet with a Bendick’s Mingles of an assortment box, by which I mean if you don’t enjoy mint-flavoured chocolates, you’re rather out of luck.

For mint, read BLOCKBUSTER ACTION, and for chocolate, read SPORTS. Microsoft unveiled a lineup which can be summed up as “All your favourite video game buddies in exciting new adventures!” New Halo, new Gears of War, new Call of Duty, new EA Sports, each appearance as predictable as the morning sun. It’s the gaming industry equivalent of visiting a film festival and being shown trailers for Transformers 4. We know they’re in development, we know they’re going to be loud, exciting and pretty to look at. Devs really don’t have to spend ten minutes demoing their favourite Black Ops 2 level for us to get the impression that yes, Black Ops 2 is coming to Xbox--nor should celebrities be wheeled on for endorsements that mean as much to the average gamer as Jessica Simpson’s weightloss plan.

But then, E3 isn’t for us. When conference highlights (don’t laugh) hit mainstream news programmes a few seconds from each of a handful of action-packed games convinces anyone watching that E3 is an exciting place. They won’t hear the jokes that fall flat, the empty pauses when the audience is given time for speakers’ statements to sink in, the broken English from Japanese producers evidently wishing trans-continental air travel had never been invented, or all the other typically E3 moments that have us cringing so hard our spincters pucker inside out. With the smoke and disco lights cluttering the stage they might as well be watching a pop concert. Ooh, look, there’s Usher!

Microsoft’s press conference was unashamedly commercial, not just in relation to its own products but to films, pop singles--even cars. It illustrated Xbox’s new cross-media capabilities using movie trailers, commercial websites and a desperate call-out to TV show of the moment Game of Thrones, the mention of which received a more vociferous response than most of the game footage they showed.

Speaking of applause, one of the biggest cheers of the afternoon went to the announcement of Internet Explorer, now available on Xbox. If they’d announced Chrome’s arrival it presumably would have been met with the kind of adulation saved for the second coming of Christ.

Today’s unlikely saviours were Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who preceded a brief plug of Obsidian’s South Park game with a sarcastic take on Microsoft’s convoluted and unnecessary SmartGlass connectivity. This is the Xbox’s answer to Nintendo’s Wii-U, a way of syncing tablets and smartphones with your Xbox so you can watch movies, play games and browse the Internet no matter where you are. As a luddite, this sounds rather dystopian. The Internet once connected people around the globe but now, like the central spider in an ever-widening web of technology it connects them to their myriad i- and e-devices. “Can you imagine life without your smartphone or tablet?” the host simpered at the start of the reveal. I can: it’s the life I’m currently leading.

Away from games, the conference was unfocussed--pointless, even. TV channels appearing on the Xbox dash isn’t likely to change the way people watch sports--remember Microsoft making a big deal about getting together to watch movies on Netflix, the virtual cinema, party chat and all the other widgits that have since fallen to disuse? Likewise, Microsoft’s own music service is too little, too late. With the entire Internet at people’s disposal, having a tiny section of Microsoft-licensed music cordoned off for Live Gold accounts is a waste of time, especially when in the same breath they’re marketing to people wielding iPads and smartphones. It’s like selling novelty cans seaside of fresh air.

Anyone playing E3 bingo would have scored big with unwieldy Kinect demos (Wreckateer), Kinect fitness titles (Nike), sportsmen playing games in their fields (Joe Montana) and dubious voice recognition (Kinect, of course). Sadly, anyone looking for original games would been out of luck; three new IPs were announced with trailers that gave away nothing about how they play, amounting to little more than names on list.

It’s easy to snark, snipe and fume at events like this for not doing justice to gaming as a hobby. Like spoiled chldren we always expect more, with no amount of blockbuster sequels--big games, popular games, maybe even good games--staving off hunger for the indefinable new. If asked, I’d find it difficult to articulate the kind of game I’d like to see at E3. Something intelligent and immersive, perhaps. Something with soul.

On the other hand, I can articulate what I don’t want to see all too well. As far as that list is concerned, Microsoft managed to tick every box.

Microsoft’s was only the first press event at this year’s expo, with many more still to come over the next two days. It remains to be seen whether Sony, Nintendo or Electronic Arts will claw back some semblence of gaming as I know and love it. But based on this opening salvo, there’s one thing I am sure of:

E3 isn’t for me.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Super Princess Peach

Ever since stumbling across Super Mario Bros. in an arcade I’ve been terribly interested in the naming conventions of the Mario franchise. Why was it Super Mario Bros.? Did it have any relationship to Bros the boy band? It was a puzzle.

Many years later I still find Nintendo’s stock of prefixes and suffixes intriguing. Like primary colours, they can be mixed together to create more interesting shades; case in point, Super Paper Mario--the name defines the game. With Nintendo so reliant on wringing out their old franchises, it’s easy to imagine a large fruit machine on one floor of their headquarters, with every prefix, suffix and middix Nintendo have ever used on its reels. Iwata steps up, gives the handle a tug and the next year’s releases are designed by rote. Go on, give it a try. Imagine the E3 crowds going crazy for Paper Mario Party, Bowser Sports Resort, or Luigi’s Haunted Kart.

My point is you know what you’re getting when you buy a game from the Mario family. The characters are so clearly defined they tint the games around them. Luigi is timid. Wario is bullish, obnoxious and grasping. Their games perfectly reflect their personalities.

So you have to wonder what was going on in the Nintendo hive the day they played the one-armed-bandit and rushed Super Princess Peach into production.

Peach has never been one of gaming’s feminist icons. I get the impression here, taking centre stage for the first time on a console that--thanks in no small part to Nintendogs--was beloved of little girls around the globe, this was Nintendo’s attempt to snatch the juvenile female market away from Imagine Babiez and Babysitting Mama. Peach is a cipher whose in-game abilities heretofore amount to floating, baking cakes and being kidnapped. As with Yoshi’s Island and Wario Land, in Super Princess Peach Nintendo had the chance to craft an identity for her. They could have made a statement: the sisters are doing it for themselves.

And if you’d only seen the game’s intro--in which Mario, Luigi and Toad are kidnapped and Peach vows to rescue them--you might think that’s exactly what they were trying to do. In Super Princess Peach our heroine isn’t beholden to any man or mushroom; she is a force unto herself, taking on all comers with only a brolly for self defence.

So imagine the titters that arose as developers designed Peach’s arsenal of moves, her--good grief--vibes. Instead of collecting fire flowers and tanooki suits, with the help of her ‘vibe wand’ Peach assaults enemies with her emotional states. She’s a quivering pre-menstrual nightmare, dashing in floods of tears one minute, the next minute setting fire to things in an irritated huff. When she’s happy she floats on a cloud of pure bliss and when she’s merely content, in a yogic trance she heals her physical well-being. You can practically hear the guffaws of Nintendo’s corporate suits: “Women--so emotional!” As a demonstration of nuanced characterisation it makes flatulent fattie Wario look like Sidney Poitier.

Triggered on the touchscreen, each of Peach’s emotions is used to negotiate some obstacle or puzzle, or dispatch the foes in her path. Not that the puzzles are particularly troubling. Super Princess Peach is simple, and only in its final stages does it present even a hint of a challenge. There are no lives to collect and no penalties for dying, and every puzzle is preceded by a hint block which tells you exactly how to overcome it.

With its candy colours and a twee art-style reminiscent of--yet inferior to--Yoshi’s Island it might be the perfect introduction to platform games for young girls. But as a Nintendo platformer it’s deeply unsatisfying. Compared to sister title The Legendary Starfy, Super Princess Peach lacks charm and intelligence. Peach’s world isn’t memorable, it doesn’t contain the tricks and sparks of inspiration we’ve come to associate with this kind of game. Though never less than amiable, it treads a fine line between being enjoyable in a simplistic sort of way and being the kind of bargain bucket dross that overwhelms the DS market, the Nicktoons branded kind best ignored out of hand. Without its pedigree it might have been a diamond in the rough, but with Nintendo’s name on the box I certainly expected more.

My expectations have d coloured my opinion--it’s hard for them not to. After all, Super Princess Peach follows a grand legacy containing some of the best video games of all time. While I was playing Super Princess Peach my wife was playing Super Mario 3D Land beside me. Whenever I looked over her shoulder I’d see some exciting new power up, or some twist on the formula. “Look at this!” she’d say, showing me this or that crazy level: platforms that march in time to the soundtrack, a stage filled with doors that teleport Mario here, there and everywhere.

In return I had nothing to show except Peach’s moods, which--in a lazy move that’s also one of my own personal bugbears--more often than not replace keys as a way of unlocking doors. Melting ice doors, blowing away cloud doors, dousing flame doors--is this really the best the developers could come up with? Even when slightly more exciting gimmicks are introduced--a level where you have to fight gusting winds, or one where buttons tilt platforms ninety degrees, changing the direction of the gravitational pull--they’re used half-heartedly. Most of the time Super Princess Peach feels so hollow because it plays like a proof of concept, a demonstration of features that are repeated and recycled in lieu of new ideas.

Padding out the game are lacklustre power-ups bought with your collected coins (because girls love shopping, don’t they?), a few touch-screen minigames, submarine shoot-em-up segments leftover from the original Super Mario Land, and--the last cry of desperation from any DS game developer--an extensive selection of jigsaw puzzles. Considering its lack of variation, its amazing that the game’s elements manage to feel so disparate.

Sadly, that’s the most interesting thing you can say about Super Princess Peach. It’s a reasonable amount of fun, and the younger you are--and the more you like the colour pink--the more you’ll get from it. But its still a shallow grab bag of half thought out ideas, so padded with dull minigames its few original ideas are smothered beneath them. It’s an experiment in mediocrity foisted upon a public who want and deserve better.

It may have been conceived to capture a certain elusive demographic, but with its contents as randomly assembled as its name, the only demographic the finished game truly appeals to is one Nintendo would be better off without.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Playing a Role

Hello again. It’s been a while.

Some time ago I wrote a piece on why games--specifically board games--were important. I believed they were so important that when I moved to New Jersey all I brought with me were clothes, a clapped-out first generation Game Boy Advance and my entire collection of board games. I paid to bring a second suitcase on the plane, just so I could take them with me. My reasoning was I wouldn’t have to worry about power supplies and international compatibility. Providing I had a large enough and stable enough space I could play The Rivals of Catan and Monopoly Deal no matter where I went . . . so long as I had people to play them with, of course.

And in America--mind-bogglingly huge, ridiculously friendly--I wouldn’t want for people to play games with. They’d be eager to spend time slinging cards with me.

So I thought.

The majority of my Christmas haul was made from cardboard. My wife wanted to make my first Christmas living in a foreign country special; she knew I’d be missing home, where Christmas is the be-all and end-all--the fulcrum, as I’ve said, about which the entire year revolves. I mightn’t have turkey or figgy pudding but I’d still have a Christmas to remember.

Of all the games and expansions I received I’ve only played one: Quarriors--and even that only the once. Our Wednesday night resolution--Game Night, as it is, was, and always shall be--soon fell by the wayside. Other plans were made. Priorities shifted. Now, the game collection that the year before I’d prized above all others might as well be welded to the shelves it sits upon.

I don’t play board games anymore.

Tabletop games only come alive when you have people to play them with; otherwise they remain inert. The cards and dice and little wooden pieces--shrapnel from wars not fought--need hands to move them, and minds behind those hands planning which cards to play and where they should go. They’re special in that way.

Somes don’t even have pieces, just rules, an entire library full of them--and these are perhaps the most special games of all.

I’m talking about role-playing games; not Mass Effect, where your choices are limited, or Final Fantasy where you have no choice at all, but pen and paper RPGs, proper RPGs, where your actions are limited only by your imagination.

I’ve been listening to the Journey to Madness podcast, a series of actual play recordings from one group’s playthrough of the Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play campaign The Enemy Within. It’s pretty wonderful. Like most actual play podcasts it charts the group’s procession through a story of intrigue and adventure; unlike most such podcasts the game is run by a games master whose grasp of this genre is phenomenal. Too often GMs speak like passive observers or deliberate antagonists, pitting their group against strings of attacks with detachment or malicious amusement and letting the whole affair disintegrate into dice rolls and number crunching. Even the most popular podcasts fall into this trap, and turn the unparalleled breadth of tabletop roleplaying into--horror upon horrors--a war game.

Journey to Madness doesn’t do this. Instead, the DM conveys the richness of the Warhammer setting in such a way that it breathes. He describes sights, sounds and smells--incidental details the characters notice as they wander from village to village. Players are given free reign to explore their surroundings; more than once, at the end of a hard day’s adventuring the GM asks the players what they want to do next, letting them play tourist in cities that only exist in their collective imagination. Days pass, the moons of the Old World wax and wane bringing holy days and festivals--there’s a sense of movement, of a world indifferent to the players which turns regardless.

In episode six players visit the Schaffenfest--the Sheep Festival--where they attend a freak show and place bets on a wrestling match. One of the players takes on the ring champion and enters into the swing of things, grappling and pinning, refusing to strike his opponent for damage as “It wouldn’t be sportsmanlike.” In the grand scheme of the story this is nothing but a diversion, yet being able to respond to the barker’s taunts and challenge the champion--or ignore them both and be on your merry way--adds so much to the world and so much to the game.

Thus far, The Enemy Within has a cast of hundreds: major NPCs who help or hinder the party and numerous others who appear only to utter a single line or provide colour. Player characters are bound not just to each other but to the world around them; each has his own motivations and secret quests, each steals off after dark chasing visions at nearby temples or spending gold at high class brothels. The story driving all this lurks inconspicuous below the surface, rising periodically to threaten the group before submerging beneath the hubbub of the Old World. There are no horizons here, only a world stretching infinitely in every direction. The only thing curbing players’ actions is a bad dice roll.

Directing--no, conducting--the game, the GM keeps things running smoothly. He alternately acts out conversations and glosses over details, emphasising important interactions while dismissing others with a wave of his hand. He makes other RPG podcasts with their interminable battle sequences look every bit the embarrassing nerdfests RPGs are often accused of being. It helps that the guy can act and doesn’t pause for thought every three seconds; he thinks on his feet and keeps the game running at an enjoyable pace, both for the gamers playing and for those listening at home.

Without his and his players’ enthusiasm, Journey to Madness would be a very sad thing indeed. I’ve had it with limp settings which have all the depth of flavour of Saturday morning breakfast cereal. I’ve had it with Cheeto-scented gamers who can’t go five minute minutes without bringing up every rancid slice of pop culture they’ve consumed in the last thirty-five years. Infectious in its enthusiasm, Journey to Madness reflects gaming at its best, without the cynicism to which we’ve all become accustomed, which our hobby has come to rely upon.

I wish I could overcome that cynicism, and attack my unplayed games with gusto. Instead I once again find myself in a malcontented malaise, without friends gamess with or incentive to play. I’ve grown so tired of feeling like this, of wallowing in despair. I’m fed up with everything appearing to be meaningless, and life being consumption and accretion in an endless spiralling coil.

After so many months playing board gaming evangelist I feel like a false prophet, that I’ve let everyone down. Even the games I’ve played I’ve played fewer than a handful of times. I have no friends to play them with and I’m never likely to make any. I’m a lost cause who pretended to be something he wasn’t, and now the truth is catching up I can only confess.

We all go through gaming doldrums at some point. Sadly, my issues run deeper and wider. It’s not so much gaming I’ve grown tired with as life itself; my only means of escape is a fantastical world where I’m a voyeur listening in on other lives. In theory I could join them--or others like them--and become someone else, if only for a few hours. But to do that I’d require courage, and that’s something I’ve never had.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Groundhog Day: Punxsutawney Phil's Cut

The other Phil gave him the opportunity of a lifetime. He’d never driven a truck before. His legs didn’t reach the pedals, his forepaws barely held the wheel. Still, he led the police a merry chase.

“Don’t drive angry,” Phil told him. The human who’d liberated him--as he had liberated Phil.

The chase ended in a quarry. Phil had removed him, set him to one side. He revved the engine. “We mustn’t keep our public waiting,” he said, eyes raw, realisation not yet set in. “It’s showtime, Phil.”

He played chicken, swerved off the ledge and into the pit. End over end, the truck dropped.

After nine dozen years of predictions the groundhog’s umpteenth death loomed in shale. Nanoseconds before impact he blinked . . . and shifted. Driving had been an interesting experience but there was so much else to see and do.

Another six weeks of winter, then. Just to see what was out there.

As for the other Phil, here their paths diverged. He’d still not learned life’s lesson but that was okay. He had time.

Straddling realities, hunting new kicks, the groundhog’s day continued.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Saga #1 Vaughan/Staples

How often do you get to be at the start of something special? How can you tell this is the birth of something which will blossom and have significance for years to come?

If you’re reading the first issue of Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga, you know this from the narration.

Like How I Met Your Mother, Saga is narrated from many years into the future; unlike it, its story is told by a girl whose parents are on opposing sides of a gargantuan galactic war. It’s a war so big, it can’t be confined to two nations, races, or planets. It’s spread across the galaxy, sweeping up peoples and places who’d otherwise have been left alone. We meet a few of these over the course of the first issue: a rat-tailed mechanic, a clan of robotic gentry, a cat who can smell lies.

We also meet protagonists and antagonists whose morals at this time are difficult to tell apart. This is a war between horned and winged peoples wielding magic and technology respectively, but their motives are murky and their causes indistinct. Both are alike in indignity; they are the Montigues and Capulets of another universe who draw noblemen and assassins to stab at our heroes, a star-crossed couple whose love for one another brokered peace and, in turn, conceived a child.

Saga’s inspirations are easy to spot. There are hints of Star Wars and Romeo & Juliet, the myriad races are taken from the pages of high fantasy, and Fiona Staples’s melancholic, whimsical artwork calls to mind classic European surrealist comic designs of Heavy Metal and the late Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud. Staples is at her best opening panels into truly cinematic vistas, showing the war in full swing, or following a space-faring pod through planetfall. With such diverse subject matter at times it almost feels like there’s too much going on, but then, Vaughan and Staples are introducing an entirely new universe, something they show with great gusto as they pull back to display the whole galaxy before crashing from one solar system to another.

It’s at times like these the narration comes in handy. Though our narrator is only a newborn in this first issue she still has a great future ahead of her. Her birth gives us a focal point in the middle of all this strangeness, a very human story in the midst of inhumanity. Her words flow around the action, giving readers something to hold onto while we’re bombarded with images and ideas.

And there is a very human feel to it, particularly in the opening panels where our heroes bicker about circumcision, what to name their baby, and--in an opening line that has already become infamous--whether or not the mother has crapped herself while giving birth. Even the cover is an image of her breast-feeding, which, if not unprecedented in comics, is certainly very rare.

As issue one comes to a close it’s difficult knowing where the story will go next. Vaughan has laid some very obvious trails as to our next destination, but as with the map our protagonists follow there are too many distractions to stick to the path ahead. Saga might be ostensibly about a couple struggling to raise a child in the middle of a war, but with so many planets and possible destinations on offer, why would we want to stick so closely to them every step of the journey? We’re offered a little insight as to what might lay off the path--who can resist a couple of robots doing it doggy style?--and it just makes Saga’s universe seem more daring, more dangerous and more enticing.

We still have a lot of road to cover. Vaughan’s previous comics have asked a lot of questions and held a lot of mysteries; in Saga the whole universe is a mystery, and based on this first issue, one well worth unravelling.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Borderlands

Usually when writing these 100 Minutes With pieces the game I’m writing about is fresh in my mind. I’ll have only just bought it or I’ll have been playing it just prior to writing. Often I’ll take notes, so as not to get essential facts wrong.

Today I have no such preparations on hand and I haven’t played the game in question for a good many months. This is acceptable--nay, encouraged--because Borderlands isn’t concerned with planning ahead or lasting repercussions. Borderlands is the epitome of hit ‘em fast and hit ‘em hard gameplay. Like life, it’s spontaneous, and having sunk far more than one hundred minutes into the game that’s exactly how I like it.

Borderlands’ premise was so bold that before its release there were plenty of nay-sayers stating it wouldn’t--couldn’t--deliver on its promises. A loot-based first person shooter with RPG trappings? Absurd. Impossible.

The nays grew in volume with every video Gearbox released, the sayers more savage in their intensity. This wasn’t a game that simply didn’t work, they said, it was a bad game. It was slow; it was clumsy; the shooting--such an integral part of the game--was unsatisfying. They spun lies based on footage they’d seen or unfinished code they’d played. The enemies didn’t react to being fired upon--the only indication that you were making an impact upon them were floating numbers indicating damage. Borderlands’ vaunted gun system--in which weapons were randomly generated on the fly and numbered in their millions--produced an arsenal they said was unsatisfying next to the limited weapon counts in every other game ever made. This brave, noble idea, so they said, was a fool’s dream.

When Edge magazine awarded Borderlands six out of ten and other early reviewers weren’t exactly enthusiastic, it seemed the nay-sayers had been right all along.

But they hadn’t been.

Let me tell you about Betsy. Betsy was my favourite character in Borderlands, a character unique to my game, who followed no script, who had no voice actor, whom nobody but a few lucky gamers I played with ever knew about but who nevertheless had more personality than 90% of written characters in 90% of games. Betsy was a gun--not a rare drop, not something sculpted by artists and placed deliberately in the game but a gun I happened across, as randomly generated as any of the other 17 million guns. She was a six-shooting shotgun that did hideous amounts of damage to anything with the misfortune to get in our way. From a distance she was a nightmare to wield--she couldn’t aim for shit. But up close she was a grinder of meat, a shredder of metal, a weapon that smacked down even the hardest villain in couple of shots. It didn’t matter that she loaded slower than 128k Spectrum game. By the time I needed to reload her the fight would already be over.

She was awesome. Not in a turtle power “Dude, that’s awesome!” kind of a way, but in a Close Encounters, religious experience kind of awesome, the kind of awesome that provokes awe, not ‘90s surfer dude clich├ęs.

She wasn’t the only thing I had going for me in the world of Borderlands, not the only thing that would have my co-op buddies’ jaws agape. Playing Brick the Berserker, when the going got tough I’d fly into a cackling rage, run up to whichever villain was giving us trouble--be it pint-sized mutant or robot mega-boss--and punch it until it exploded. Every time I did this my team mates on the other end of Xbox Live would be reduced to giggles. I imagine them stunned into inaction, watching as the lumbering idiot, all shoulder muscle and attitude, bum-rushed the enemy and felled them in a flurry of flaming fists. In all my time playing Borderlands multiplayer I never got to see this spectacle from the other side, watching another Brick dashing into the fray to wail on the bad guys, but I saw monsters fall at the hands of a mutant kestrel, watched the group soldier erect turrets that endlessly refilled the group’s ammunition, saw a Siren flash across the battlefield, through walls and doors, dismembering enemies before they realised she was behind them.

Even in a world filled with so many wonders Betsy was my ace in the hole. Nobody I knew was lucky enough to find such a diamond in the rough. When we opened treasure chests and ran as one to see if any of the blue, purple and orange loot would be useful, while the others measured accuracy stats and brandished their new toys I always came away disappointed. In the dozen hours of gameplay after finding her I never met a gun that outperformed Betsy. She was the powerhouse of my arsenal and though I sometimes switched to other guns to take on more distant threats--such as Mothrakk, a Pandoran bat who blotted the sky with wings the size of swimming pools--whenever it came to ground-based action it was Betsy I turned to.

I gave her up reluctantly. She was a fairly low-level gun, too low for a Berserker hitting his mid-thirties. I eventually found better guns, faster guns, and though I held her in my inventory I used her less and less. Finally I passed her onto a co-op buddy who was suitably honoured that I should give up to him not just a decent gun, but a gun I’d named, a gun I’d spoken about so often he knew her name. “You take care of her,” I told him. He didn’t need me to tell him anything. He’d seen her in action. He knew what she could do.

In time he passed Betsy on to another player, hopefully with enough reverence that he or she in turn passed her on to somebody else. I like to think Betsy was never cast aside like a white-hued revolver, dropped on the ground and forgotten when the level reset. I like to think even now someone out there is passing her on to an awestruck friend. “This is Betsy,” they say. “You take care of her.”

That gun had more character than most video games, it’s true. And Borderlands--which mightn’t be perfect, which have a hundred different fetch quests linked by interminable grind, pitting you against palette swap enemies in areas you’ll visit so often you could negotiate them with your eyes closed--thrives upon these brief and unique flashes of character. Ask a Borderlands fan about the game and he might tell you about its sense of humour. He might throw out some lines of its immensely quotable dialogue or talk about Claptrap, the game’s irritating yet strangely lovable mascot.

Or maybe he’ll tell you about the time he lay dying in the dirt, down to his last bullet, his partner pinned under fire too far away to help, and as the screen darkened and the last of his life ebbed away he made a one in a million head-shot, rescuing his buddy and reviving himself in the process. This is a game where killing an enemy in the last few seconds of your life is like throwing another credit into a ‘Game Over. Continue?’ arcade machine.

What every one of those reviewers and nay-sayers missed is that Borderlands mirrors life in its richness. Its blasted landscapes are often drab, its action is often monotonous, but there are moments when the levels open up in breathtaking vistas, moments made all the more poignant by the rusted metal and dusty canyons traversed in order to reach them. My co-op partner, the recipient of my treasured Betsy, often said: “This really is a beautiful game, isn’t it?” Every time he did, he said it with surprise, as if he hadn’t noticed before.

When an unexpected moment of comedy arises in the unlikeliest of situations, that’s pure Borderlands. When a routine firefight goes awry and you find yourself drilled under cover, cobbling together tactics in hope you might make it out of the level alive, that’s Borderlands as well.

A gun called Betsy in a sea of disposable pea-shooters? You’d better believe that’s Borderlands.

Borderlands is one of my favourite games from the past few years. It’s this spontaneity tempered with a certain slow-paced solidity that marks it apart from the many other first person shooters released in this time frame, all of which, with their noise and bluster, feel almost ephemeral in comparison. They’re blockbuster movies compared with Borderlands’ slow-burning TV series. Like Babylon 5 or The Wire, the start--the first hundred minutes, if you will--is the hardest part to get through. For the first few levels your weapons will be weak, your powers non-existent and fighting through skags--bottom-feeding rat-dog hybrids--soon becomes tiresome. But continue and your perseverance will be rewarded. This is your training, your course in surviving the wilds and wastelands of Pandora. Just as death in Borderlands can mean life, so the game’s lowest points make the highs feel even higher.

I recommend it, utterly and without hesitation, to anyone tired of being pushed through monotonous contemporary shooters. Those Modern Warfare guns with names like a toppled pile of toddlers’ alphanumeric learning blocks--you don’t need any more of those in your life.

No, what you need is a Betsy.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies

Dragon Quest is a legend, not a game. It’s said that the release of every new title in the series stops Tokyo in its tracks. People of all ages, from all walks of life schedule time off school and work just to play the damned thing. As a video game franchise, it’s as big as they come, yet for many years it was virtually unknown outside its home country. While the Western world was wowed by Final Fantasy’s cinematics, back East, Japan suckled at the Dragon Quest teat. This was the series that separated fan boy from otaku. This was the JRPG at its purist.

It took Dragon Quest VIII to introduce the West to the franchise’s allure (and no, it wasn’t the first Dragon Quest game released outside Japan; just bear with me, okay?) because Dragon Quest VIII was the first game in the series to have a lush, 3D world and a localisation that wasn’t just acceptable, it was enjoyable. It had been translated into English so well it made every Japanese game ever given a PAL EU release sound like it was channelling Dick van Dyke. Dragon Quest VIII had proper cockneys and Scots and Welshies and everything in between, and while it wasn’t perfect, chances are you were too busy grinning to notice its imperfections. It was a bright, joyous affair, the perfect counterpoint to the steampunk Star Wars antics of Final Fantasy XII which was released soon after. Back to back, the two signified a golden age for the JRPG. If this was what we could expect from the Squaresoft/Enix merge then the gaming world was a better place for it.

Dragon Quest IX is its follow-up, somehow bigger and better despite being crammed onto a DS card and promoted by Jedward. That Jedward--the mutated offspring of the Judderman and the Twins from The Matrix Reloaded; a pair of twinned popstrels discovered by Simon Cowell in a Morlock cavern beneath the X-Factor studio and through unthinking malice unleashed upon the nation--should advertise a video game--and a JRPG at that--speaks volumes. Until this point Nintendo had pop stars and celebrities schilling for family friendly games--Wii Sports, Nintendogs, Mario Kart--and educational software that taught pensioners how to draw or play Sudoku. JRPGs aren’t about waving Wii-wands; they’re not made for the Redknap family. Dragon Quest otaku had every right to be up in arms about Jedward--a couple of toilet brushes with learning difficulties--advertising this most prized jewel in the JRPG crown.

Except, as Jedward are to people who don’t like music or human intelligence, Dragon Quest IX is a game for people who don’t really like video games. It’s therefore perfectly suited to being advertised by stars who have problems telling left from right. “Heresy!” I hear you cry--but please, for the second time this article, bear with me.

As with any genre that’s been around for so long, JRPGs have long since rested on their laurels and adhered to a set code of conduct. Turn-based and menu-driven, there’s little separating Dragon Quest from its brethren. If aliens were to descend from the heavens demanding to be shown an example of our Earthling Japanese Role Playing Games, this would be the game we’d show them. Given that Jedward--like Lady Gaga was slit across her mid-riff and revealed to be a couple of imps standing one atop the other’s shoulders--are as close as the human race has to otherworldly beings, this is the game we gave to them, and to all their followers who, in complete contradiction to common sense, have made them an unlikely success.

I’m not saying Dragon Quest doesn’t require skill to play, or that there aren’t tactical depths concealed behind its charming exterior. But in the first hundred minutes--and for several hours thereafter--you won’t be plumbing them: you’ll be pressing the same button over and over again. For the first hundred minutes it takes as much thought to play Dragon Quest IX as it does to shriek “Cringe!” from beneath a hairstyle resembling a startled, anaemic bull-rush. In fact the most demanding thing you’ll do during this time is pick out a hairstyle from all the choices given.

Clocking in at playtime measured in weeks, Dragon Quest plays the long game. At times it deceives, presenting open fields to roam across only small corners of which hold anything of interest. It’s as padded as a supermodel playing Friar Tuck. Battles encountered after twenty hours of play require only marginally more attention than those encountered at the start--that’s twenty hours of repeatedly pressing the same button. Attack, choose your enemy, repeat--it’s like the back of a shampoo bottle stuck in a feedback loop. Your cohorts, should you take them with you (unlike the colourful cast of Dragon Quest XIII your party consists of randomly generated bots who can escort you or be abandoned as required) are either controlled individually or left to follow behavioural rules which have them fight aggressively or conservatively depending on your needs. They’re perfectly capable of looking after themselves, which leaves you at a loss for anything to do other than hit the attack button again and again and again. It’s like being a shepherd with a pack of particularly intelligent sheepdogs: you could whistle, but all you really need do is close the gate once they’re done.

The only scripted character accompanying you on your quest is Stella, a fairy cut from the same cloth as Ocarina of Time’s Navi, who berates you for anything improper, like, say, independent thought. Dialogue options (in the shape of questions with yes/no answers) are only included for show. Tell a villager that no, you don’t want to help him, and Stella chews you out; try to leave a town when you still have business there and she becomes downright irate. You’re tethered to the story with an industrial elastic belt: attempt to deviate from it and you’ll be pinged right back on track with Stella’s reprimands ringing in your ears.

By JRPG standards there’s a lot to see and do in Dragon Quest IX. The Battle Log contains pages of monsters, clothes, achievements and items to collect--it’s a set collecting game as much as it’s an RPG. The alchemy system unlocked several hours in scratches an obsessive compulsive urge--you’ll want to recreate weapons you already have in your inventory just to remove the question mark next to their list entry. But it’s the largest fish in a very small pond. Next door, Skyrim rules the western RPG ocean, defining openness as yelling a goat off a cliff, grabbing mayflies from the sunset sky and eating them in your pants, killing an entire village--quest-givers and all--just because one of them has an face you don’t particulartly care for. Dragon Quest’s openness extends to palette-swap enemies and a half-dozen sets of collectable animal-ear hair bands. It is a trompe l’oeil of open gameplay.

And I want to hate it for giving the illusion of openness, and for its battles throughout which my involvement boils down to choosing the same attack options regardless of my foes--for being, in short, the kind of game which deserves to be sold to Jedward fans.

But I can’t.

I can’t tell you exactly why I like Dragon Quest IX so much. I can’t tell you how enjoyable it is to visit my wife’s game world and run around like a superhero, eviscerating monsters she has trouble with in a single stroke. I don’t know why it’s fun collecting party tricks--MMORPG emotes--then binding four of them to a single button to make it look as if my character’s breakdancing. Why do I fight monsters for experience point despite there being no experience bar to catalogue them and despite having to return to a church to discover how close I am to advancing to the next level? Why do I put up with this constrictive, archaic system when other, wider games are more appealing and much closer to my heart?

It beats the hell out of me.

What I can say is that much of Dragon Quest IX’s charm lies in detail uncharacteristic of the genre. The nameless, identikit NPCs all say different things depending on the time of day or how far you’ve advanced through the story. Equipment is depicted in-engine, meaning whatever weapon or item of clothing your characters are equipped with can be seen at a glance--you can tell the difference between worn cat ears and bunny ears even on the DS’s titchy screen. Monsters respond in a variety ways when in battle, sometimes choosing not to attack at all but to become enthralled with a certain member of your group or sit around dumbly, playing with daisies underfoot. This varied behaviour only adds to the charm of a menagerie that is already uniformly charming, as does seeing all parties involved in a fight scurry about between attacks, lining them up and interacting with one another, removing the abstract nature that usually accompanies turn-based combat. Every attack’s cause and effect are clearly on display and help give each battle a unique feel.

And let’s not ignore that this is a visually sumptuous game, arriving late enough in the DS’s life to take full advantage of the hardware. Playing a game so majestic on a humble handheld--the same console that played home to Cooking Mama, no less--is a thrill unto itself. When it was announced there was some fan consternation as to whether the DS could do justice to a mainline Dragon Quest title being as it was a step down in power from the Playstation 2 on which the previous game had been released. The DS acquits itself so admirably in this task that Dragon Quest IX genuinely feels more impressive than its predecessor rather than simply feeling impressive because you can play it on the toilet: it’s a sequel that feels like a sequel, rather than a game emasculated to fit onto a handheld.

Like World of Warcraft--which it resembles at times--Dragon Quest IX is a game of unlikely but undeniable charm. Large parts of it are spent performing repetitive tasks for little reward; it’s a time waster, but like fishing off a pier or pottering in the garden it somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts.

It’s gentle, feel-good gaming, and do you know what? If it meant that more people played it, enjoyed it and smiled about it, I don’t mind that Jedward advertised it. In pop culture terms that’s as high as praise comes.